Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rereading the Classics [Kleist]

Kleist’s drama is also rewarding but not nearly as immediately entertaining as the stories. I hope to treat his plays in a future post.

Kleist is the great narrator of self-consciousness. His essay “On the Puppet Theater” suggests that, since the Fall, humans are at something of a loss, having lost the absolute rightness of animals [1] without gaining in compensation the omniscience of the divine. Though the opinions are given with ironic distance through the persons of a dialogue, the author seems in fact to have felt Angst bordering on despair until his death in a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel in 1811 when the writer was thirty-four. Some biographers say the poet came to the conviction that life was not worth living based on his reading of Kant which left him a helpless skeptic. Others have made a good deal of what might reasonably be taken to be partially repressed homosexuality and his close relationship with his cross-dressing half-sister Ulrike. His existential sensibility, though, was doubtless natural to him, of a piece with his Poe-like interest in the Gothic and his fiercely painful sense of irony.

The form of the Novelle is most appropriate for Kleist’s imagination. In a phrase often used to characterize the form, Goethe said that the Novelle should detail a “strange, unheard-of experience.” [2] With this license as well as the era’s taste for the supernatural, Kleist could compose with a very free hand, and he excelled at plotting. Of course, most of the world’s stories have been told with little regard for verisimilitude. Folk tales, fables, allegories, parables, Longus, the Legenda Aurea, Boccaccio, Margaret of Navarre, through the great German Novelle of the nineteenth century, none had much concern with direct representation of everyday events.

Given the freedom allowed by the form, Kleist proceeded to bend circumstance beyond coincidence into paradox. “The Marquise of O--” opens with a bizarre notion: a high-minded and aristocratic lady is advertising publicly to find who might be the father of her baby. No sooner has the reader swallowed this notion then the narration is suddenly swept up in the madness of war with flames, explosions, and soldiers bent on rape. The story works out at somewhat greater length than strict economy might suggest and, at the end, just when the neat denouement is imminent, the Marquise rejects her reappeared lover, This proves a mere hiccup as she accepts him eventually, but the reader wonders what further oscillations might occur beyond the tale’s horizon.

In “The Duel” the innocent Littegarde similarly finds herself unjustly maligned; even the divine verdict seems to have condemned her. She suffers the moral equivalent of Job’s afflictions, appearing guilty without having sinned.
Michael Kohlhaas, hero of what is doubtless Kleist’s best-known story, was, the reader learns at the outset, “one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day” which sounds a bit like what one might have said of Old John Brown of Osawatamie. Philosophically, the principled horse-dealer enacts the disaster of idealism. His refusal to accommodate to the gravely flawed institutions of his day leads inevitably to his death. Still, his integrity remains a powerful statement both of the inevitably “failed” society around us and of the all-but-foolhardy rectitude of those who challenge it. Who will not cheer when Kohlhaas issues manifestos from the provisional Capital of the World? But who would join him?

In Kleist’s world (as indeed in all times) the wheel of fortune can turn exceedingly swiftly. The students in “Cecilia” change in a moment from light-hearted though anti-clerical to morbidly serious and pious. In “The Foundling” a kindly act leads to destruction as the most benevolent of men is drawn by circumstance into gradual brutalization until he actually embraces hell. In “The Earthquake in Chile” the dramatic noose is pulled tight from the very start. Love brings tyranny; love’s persistence brings a couple of death penalties. The lovers are miraculously saved, though thousands of other lives are lost in the process. Finally, their victory proves illusory, or at any rate temporary, and they are killed by a post-apocalyptic mob among the city’s ruins, a mob that fancies itself doing God’s work by killing a pair of lovers.

“The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is a simple little karmic haunt, illustrating how what dangers threaten the soul of the proprietor of a wealthy estate. Its primary appeal is Poe-like, a pure relish for the creepy.

Kafka thought so highly of Kleist that he described his predecessor as a “blood-relation.” In a rare public performance, he chose to read aloud from “Michael Kohlhaas.” The earlier writer’s influence, in both world-view and narrative style, led Oskar Walzel, in an early review of “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”) and “Die Heizer” (“The Stoker”), to find “etwas Kleistisches.” [3] Though Kleist may have thought himself the loser in his contention with an Olympian Goethe, he now seems prescient, like Byron a Romantic existentialist. Kleist’s essay “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking” anticipates the concept of the unconscious, recognizes the strength of the irrational, and portrays language as a tool for the discovery of knowledge but as one which is always to some extent inadequate.

The space between readings is politically evident. Kleist’s military service, described as the result of family coercion by most biographers, seemed exemplary to the Nazis. The playwright’s characters who might be today considered Existentialist “men of action” in an absurd world struck the Third Reich as admirably nationalistic. After a performance of The Prince of Homburg Goebbels said of him “What a man!” [4] In some respects a mirror image of this distortion was provided by East German critics who, primarily because of “Michael Kohlhaas” made him a proto-socialist. In fact Kleist adopted the progressive politics of most Romantics. For instance, he applauded the French Revolution, considering it a beneficial if insufficient opening toward liberation.

His rhetoric is consistent with the carnival ride of his plotting. Kleist took full advantage of the ability of his German language, just when a sentence may seem to be coming to a natural conclusion, to throw off new clauses with dependent phrases hanging in clusters, yet, realizing that all effects are heightened by contrast, he also employed the barest paratactic annal-like phrases to convey his hairpin narrative turns. His stories resemble folk narrative in their dependence on incident and the deadpan lack of affect. The reader is virtually never told what goes on in a character’s mind yet there is never any doubt.

For all his apparent sensationalism and singularity, all his neuroses and depression, indeed, to a large extent because of these characteristics, he portrayed a world recognizable to most of us in the twenty-first century.

1. The speaker tells a marvelous story, worthy of Zhuangzi, of a fencer’s duel with a bear whose unerring responses never fail to block the human’s artfully cultivated moves.

2. In one of the conversations with Eckermann. The German phrase is a “seltsamen, unerhörten Ereignis.”

3. Walzel found “something Kleist-like.” "The Stoker” is the opening chapter of the unfinished novel Amerika.

4. In fact, two twentieth century members of his family, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin and his son, though still maintaining the military tradition, participated in plots to assassinate Hitler.

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